With six games down and six to go -- including home contests against Oregon and Notre Dame -- in the regular season, Garry Paskwietz, Greg Katz and Johnny Curren sit down and dissect the Trojans' season so far.
Is that where you thought they would be?
Garry Paskwietz: Yes and no. The ideal hope for the Trojans was an undefeated season, and obviously that’s gone now with the Stanford loss. But a loss in that early stretch of the schedule was not entirely out of the blue with four of five games on the road, including some tough Pac-12 challenges. They are still well positioned for a conference title run and a shot at the national title game.
Greg Katz: In terms of the record, I thought this team would be 6-0. Most colleges would love to be 5-1 at this point, but then again most colleges don’t have quarterback Matt Barkley, receivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee, tight ends Xavier Grimble and Randall Telfer, and tailbacks Silas Redd and Curtis McNeal.
Johnny Curren: Honestly, with everything that the Trojans had coming back, especially on offense, I expected USC to be undefeated at this point. In looking at the schedule back during fall camp, I thought that the biggest tests would come toward the end of the season in Oregon and Notre Dame. With Stanford losing quarterback Andrew Luck to the NFL, I never thought that the Trojans would fall to the Cardinal.
What has been most impressive part of the season to you?
GP: The way the inexperienced defensive line has responded to preseason concerns. This unit has been outstanding with applying pressure -- led by newcomers Morgan Breslin and Leonard Williams -- and that impact has been seen in the defense’s ability to create turnovers.
GK: Without question, it would have to be the play of the defense, primarily the front four and the linebackers. The front seven have done a wonderful job, and the secondary, too -- outside one corner back spot -- has mostly lived up to its billing.
JC: The performance of the defensive line has been the most impressive part of the season by a landslide. Like everyone else, I was under the impression that the unit was a weak link without a lot of depth. But here we are halfway through the season, and newcomers like Morgan Breslin and Leonard Williams have helped make the defensive line the strength of the defense. Twenty-one sacks as a group so far? I didn’t see that coming.
What has been the most surprising missing element?
GP: The lack of consistent crispness in the passing game between Matt Barkley, Robert Woods and Marqise Lee. Don’t get me wrong, they've had their share of big plays, it’s just that I expected them to be at that high level in every game. It wasn’t an unrealistic expectation from that group. It was one shared by pretty much every college football fan in the country.
GK: The offensive productivity, especially in the second half of games. It’s at times painful, frustrating and confusing to watch.
JC: The lack of cohesiveness in the passing game has been the most surprising missing element. With Matt Barkley back in the fold with Robert Woods and Marqise Lee, not to mention some very talented tight ends, I thought that the offense would be putting up impressive numbers every week. But for whatever reason, the Trojans have been off and on throughout the season, and they’ve had particular problems stretching the field. Fortunately for USC, the ground game has performed better than expected.
What needs to happen for the Trojans to have a shot at running the table?
GP: The players need to regain the spirit they had at the end of the 2011 season. There was an energy and joy to that team in the way they played the game that hasn’t completely been recaptured yet this year. But if it can be found, this final stretch of the season could be memorable because all the key pieces are in place for a championship run.
GK: Given that the defense raises its game against the much better offenses to come, the offense will need to quickly pick up the pace, both players and coaches. The Trojans will need to let it all hang out offensively and go out to win games instead of trying not to lose. If they expect to have a shot at running the table, they’ll have to significantly rise to the occasion in the second half of games, especially in the upcoming stretch of pivotal games.
JC: In order to run the table, the defense needs to keep playing like it has been, and more importantly, the offense needs to come together and develop an identity, especially in the passing game. There have been stretches when Barkley and his receivers have been completely out of sync. Even if the running game is going strong, eventually they’re going to face a defense that will stack the box and slow it down, so the passing attack needs to become a consistent option.